Cut Copy have just announced that they will be playing their first headlining shows in NZ this May. I am crazy amounts of excited, they are my favourite band and their music has had a huge influence on my musical tastes over the last seven years or so.
In honour of today's announcement, I thought I'd post an interview I did with singer Dan Whitford about the art he creates for Cut Copy. I did the interview as part of an article I was writing about the relationship between bands and their album artwork. The art of Factory Records' Peter Saville was a big part of the article and I also spoke to Ruban Nielson of the Mint Chicks and Michael Vadino from DFA Records for the piece. The article was to appear in Pulp magazine, but as you probably know by now, the magazine went under before the issue went to print. The transcripts of those interviews will appear here sometime soon.
When I spoke to Dan, Zonoscope was just in the process of being mixed so the album artwork wasn't finished yet. Which is a shame, because I would really like to talk to him about the use of Tsunehisa Kimura's photo.
I understand you started off as an artist and that was the first thing you wanted to do, is that right?
I studied graphic design at uni, I was always into art when I was in high school and then when I finished I viewed graphic design as a career. When I was at uni that was when I started getting interested in music and some of my friends that I was at uni with (actually one of them was the brother of Rolland S. Howard, from the Birthday Party who passed away recently), he was a mature student and I remember when we were doing graphic design together, he started me off. I remember him giving me a whole bunch of cool records to listen to when I was first getting into making music and I guess it’s one of those things, there are so many bands who come from art school and that background, I guess just creative minds coming together and sharing ideas and that’s where I got interested in both music and design. I started a design business with someone I went to uni with and a design business that is still going now and I’m still sort of involved in.
Do you think you would have a different outlook on creating both art and music if you hadn’t gone to art school?
Without a doubt. That’s where you develop aesthetically and ideas-wise and processes that you take into your work and your art after that. You’re also in an environment with other like-minded people or with different ideas that have influence on you and maybe you have influence on other people as well. I think it’s really a good place to get started with art or design or music or anything creative and being in an environment with other creative people and that’s the way it worked for me anyway.
Do you think you have had had a similar aesthetic over the years or has it changed?
I think yeah, in music and with any sort of taste it evolves as time goes on and there are fashion that defines the music or the art and I think my taste has evolved along with that to some degree. There are probably still some ideas that are constant with it. With Cut Copy people really see a connection between the record that we’ve done and the music that we’ve put out all the way through but obviously there’s an evolution there as well and I think that’s important.
When you’ve finished recording an album, do you design after it or are you designing while you’re making the music for it?
I wouldn’t probably start putting together an album cover before we’ve finished the music because I guess for me working on an album it’s more than a collection of songs. Musically speaking, I always try and work towards something that is an experience, which works beyond just being a collection of songs, whether it’s telling a story or creating an atmosphere. So I guess it’s important to establish that before you create the visual representation of that. But at the same time you are absorbing influences the whole way along and in terms of the visual ideas, I’m always tearing stuff out of magazines and taking photos of things and images I find on the internet, just things like that that are triggers for ideas that maybe you come back to later. So I think that I’m always gathering ideas, but usually I like to wait until the album has taken shape before working on artwork.
With the art that you create for Cut Copy, do you try and reflect the music that you’ve made or is it just an amalgamation of things that you’ve liked while you were writing the album?
I think the music is more or less that, in a way, an amalgamation of things that I’ve liked and different ideas that I think it would be cool to see how they work together so I think the artwork follows in a similar vein to some degree. I’d always try to reflect the ideas or point people in the direction of where I’m coming from with the music with all of the visual references as well. With something like Bright Like Neon Love, particularly that was very obviously drawing on a lot of synthesised pop music form the late 70s and early 80s and all of the airbrushed images and weird sci-fi magazine clippings and I guess aesthetically they really meshed. The next record In Ghost Colours was a much more textural, psychedelic, dance, very layered sound and I guess that’s what the artwork reflects of that one, layered photographic images but I think both of the records so far I’ve tried to capture the feeling of the music in the artwork.
Is there a singles cover or album cover that you haven’t done the graphic design for? Would you ever consider handing over creative control to someone else?
Yeah, totally. The busier that we get and the more that we tour and the more demands on our time as a band it gets harder and harder to work on the artwork so there’s certainly times where… obviously I run a design business so if things get a little too hectic I can say, ‘Hey can you guys help me out here, I’m not going to have time to finish this off’ and obviously all of the guys I work with are really talented designers so I trust them to know my aesthetic and what I would want to do with stuff. But on the whole, with all of the major stuff, I’ve tried to design everything, more or less. Not that it needs to be that way, but I’m always interested by other bands who do their own artwork, people like Beck, and Black Dice. For me it adds an extra element of interest for a band to do their own artwork, so it makes it that more interesting as a fan because you feel like you’re getting a real insight into what the band’s about and what they’re doing with their music and what they’re thinking, so I always try and do it myself.
Have you ever tried to involve the other members of the band in the design process?
Of course. I wouldn’t send a CD off to press without showing them, I think that’ll be quite crazy! I think we’ve all got a similar aesthetic in a lot of ways. Tim our guitarist went to art school and Ben who plays bass with us was at film school so we’ve all got quite visual backgrounds and we’re all into that side of things, so we all workshop ideas and bits and pieces along the way. The same way it works musically I suppose.
What is your process for designing?
I don’t know if there is a steadfast rule for that sort of thing. I think really, with designing anything, I hate the idea that you’d just sit down in front of a computer and then start working on it. For me, good art and good design comes from good ideas. I’m someone who likes to get outside and go to a record store or gather inspiration in reference for ideas before launching into something. I don’t believe you can truly create art in a bubble. Maybe there are some prodigies out there that don’t need anything else, they’re just spewing out amazing art the whole time. I think even the most talented and unique artists need to be inspired by the environment and inspired by things around them. I like to try to get away from my computer and away from pen and paper just to get ideas and then come back and work on things, once I’ve got a few ideas about what to work on. That’s a general idea but to be honest it’s pretty much different every time, whether there’s a new visual artwork or piece of music, so I don’t know if there’s really a set of rules for how I design.
Do you think album artwork is still relevant today?
Yeah, I think it’s still massively important. I think it’s one of the few things that makes buying albums still worthwhile. The chance to own something that looks beautiful or is interesting or has some extra value. People need to be a bit smarter about how they package records now because there’re so many people who won’t go into a record store and look at your record, so many people just go out and download it, but I think you’ve got to have an added incentive to do artwork and create something that people want to own. Vinyl is a great format for artwork because it is bigger and just classier than a plastic CD case. I think that’s one thing that I’ve noticed, CD sales have been going down and vinyls, although it’s a very small share of the market, sales have been steadily going up I think it’s increased almost double in the last couple of years so it’s kind of interesting, that people still want artwork and real fans still want to own something and I think vinyl is a good way to go about that and it is a good format for artwork too.
Do you have a favourite album cover?
I’m just trying to think favourties. I’ve always been a great fan of all of the new order albums, Peter Saville work with all Factory records. Probably my favourite of all of those records is the cover he did for Power Corruption and Lies, flowers in some kind of renaissance paintings and then in the corner there are these colour swatch squares, very abstract, there aren’t even any words on it but it’s a very interesting abstract image and one that stuck out for me out of all of the stuff that he worked on for factory. I’m a big fan I actually went to see him when I was studying design, he was hugely influential at the time. It was a while ago but he was very engaging and to be honest the artwork did the talking for him in a lot of ways because of all the artwork he has created for Factory and other artists as well, he was very engaging, quite British as well, in a self-deprecating way. There are not many other speakers I remember from that conference but he had a really big impression on me, I remember that.
Do you design the artwork for Cutters Records as well?
Yeah. Totally. I guess that’s another outlet for a little bit of design. One of the things when you’re at design school, pretty much everyone says I’d really love a job designing album covers, but there aren’t really many jobs going around, so one of the fringe benefits of being in a band or having your own record label is you can give yourself a few times doing record covers, so I’ve managed to do that for myself a few times now.
How do you go about designing for a band that isn’t your own?
Well I guess seeing as I trained as a designer and I have worked as a designer for a long time, it’s all about communication, you find out what they’re about and what they want to do and try to create something that fulfils what they’re looking for. Create something that communicates the ideas that they’re trying to communicate. It’s different from doing your own thing since you already know what you want to do, but I actually find it quite enjoyable, doing something aside from Cut Copy work because it makes a good change.
Have you thought about artwork for the new album?
Yeah I guess thinking about it, but we haven’t finished the record yet and as I said before it doesn’t make much sense going too far down the track of working on the design until the record has fully taken shape. I think in about a month when we’re done mixing it, I’ll start pulling together some visual ideas for it. I’m looking forward to everyone hearing it, the band’s been sitting on it for so long that it’ll be nice to get some outside ears on it.
Wellington: San Francisco Bathhouse May 25th
Auckland: The Studio May 26th
Tickets are on sale 9am Thursday 7 April from Undertheradar.co.nz